Get the Scoop with Informational Interviewing

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

Informational interviewing is a highly effective, yet rarely used career management tool. It involves talking in a structured way to people who currently work in a particular area of practice in order to gather information and advice. It’s an essential part of networking and job hunting, especially in a tight job market. If you’re simply exploring your career options, informational interviewing can help you learn more about different specialties to decide if any are right for you. If you’re considering getting into a particular specialty, informational interviewing can help you gain more in-depth knowledge about that field. It can yield valuable advice for breaking into the specialty and help you get contacts and referrals. If you’re currently unemployed and looking for work, whether new graduate or experienced nurse, this tool is essential.

How to Get Started
Make a list of the people you’d like to talk to. If you already know people who work in a particular specialty or for a particular company or hospital you’d like to work for, start with them. But it’s good to make new contacts, too. For example, if you’d like to learn more about psychiatric nursing, you could conduct informational interviews with the state or national president of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, a nursing director or manager of a psychiatric facility or unit, and anyone who works in the specialty. It’s ideal to conduct an informational interview in person, but, if necessary, the telephone will do,. Of course, you can also use e-mail, but it’s so impersonal and you lose out on the opportunity to have active dialogue that can yield even more information. Besides, it’s often more convenient for the person you contact to answer questions verbally rather than typing and editing responses.

Setting Up the Appointment
Initially, contact the person you want to meet with by letter or telephone. Introduce yourself and mention why you’re contacting him or her. If someone referred you or suggested that you contact this person, mention that person’s name right up front. After your introduction, say something like, “I’m exploring my career options and have always been interested in psychiatric nursing. I’d appreciate the opportunity to meet with you briefly to learn more about the field. I’d also like to learn more about you and how you got started. I’ll only take 10 to 15 minutes of your time.” If the person responds with “Can’t we just do this by phone?” you can say, “We could, but I’d love the opportunity to meet you in person.” It’s worth a try.

The Meeting
Regardless of your objective, conduct yourself as if you were going on a job-finding interview. Dress in a business suit or your best outfit, shake hands at the beginning and end of the meeting, use assertive body language and make good eye contact throughout. Be prepared with specific questions. Be concise and clear. Take a small notebook with you. You can have your own questions written down to keep you on track and also jot down information, resources, and referrals you pick up during the interview.

Some questions to ask:

  • How did you get started in this specialty?
  • What do you like most/least about your job?
  • What is the job outlook for the next five years?
  • Can you describe a typical day?
  • Are there any related industry trends I should know about?
  • What professional associations do you or others in this specialty belong to?
  • What are typical salary ranges in this specialty for entry-level and advanced positions?
  • What advice do you have for someone interested in breaking into this specialty?
  • Do you know anyone else I can talk to?
  • (If yes) May I say that you referred me?

Of course you can add your own questions or eliminate any of the above, depending on your objective. Tailor it to the situation.

Your major objective during this interview is to get information and advice. So, it would be inappropriate to ask for a job, even if that’s what you’re hoping for. However, job offers are sometimes a byproduct of informational interviewing. Another objective is to make industry contacts. That’s why it’s always best to meet with people in person. And it’s important to ask for referrals. Bring your résumé along and ask the person you’re meeting with to review it at a later time for feedback on its content and format and leave a business card. This creates another opportunity to interact. Also, be sure to get the business card of the person you’re interviewing.

Follow-Up
Send a follow-up note right after the conversation thanking the person for the time spent and the information and insights he or she shared. The note should be word processed or handwritten on a professional note card or on good stationery. Use e-mail for future correspondence, but not for this initial thank-you note.

Informational interviewing, like everything else, is something you become more comfortable with over time. And because you’re asking the questions and don’t feel the pressure of a traditional job-finding interview, the experience can be quite pleasant and informative. One thing is certain: You’re guaranteed to be enlightened and energized by the experience, and you’ll make some great new contacts.

Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, is the Career Guru for Nurses and author of The ULTIMATE Career Guide for Nurses.

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